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Local growers want to connect with local chefs

June 22, 2011
The Dothan Eagle
Dothan, Alabama




By Peggy Ussery
Eagle Staff Writer


DOTHAN, Ala. -- Chef Bill Schleusner picked up a cantaloupe at the Enterprise Farmers Market and sniffed it. Farmer Steve Merritt had already set aside some eggs, banana peppers, okra and green tomatoes for Schleusner.


In the past year, the two men have developed a good working relationship.


Schleusner, the chef and co-owner of The Rawls Restaurant in Enterprise, buys produce from Merritt, using it to create the dishes on the restaurant’s menu. The chef prefers to use produce and other foods that come from local and regional growers. Not only is it fresher, he said, but it tastes better.


“When you eat the vegetables of the season, they do have a better flavor,” Schleusner said.


But the chef, who took over management of The Rawls last year, has a deeper philosophy when it comes to using local farmers to stock his kitchen.


“I want to pull from the land to support these people and present what they grow in a way customers can recognize it,” Schleusner said.


For Merritt, who also sells produce wholesale to local grocery stores, such relationships have allowed him to expand the local market for his family’s fifth-generation farm.


“We don’t have to unload at the distant market,” Merritt said. “That’s a huge savings.”


Of course, Schleusner’s needs at his restaurant won’t support all local farmers. But there are those who are trying to create a restaurant market for local growers, connecting them with interested chefs.


That’s a goal this year for the Poplar Head Farmers Market that operates each Saturday in June and July in downtown Dothan. The market’s organizers keep a list of vendors willing to work with local restaurants in providing food. About half of the growers who are vendors at the Poplar Head Market this year have expressed an interest in serving local chefs. While more local restaurants do use locally-grown food, only two restaurants have agreed to work with the farmers market’s Restaurant Connection program – The Rawls in Enterprise and Mildred’s Restaurant and Tea Room in Dothan.


“We’re just trying to promote more local buying of fresh produce,” said Julie Bishop, the market’s director. “Our area has an abundance of farmland, and we want to keep those farmers in business. In addition, it’s just a plus when people who visit local restaurants are served local food.”


Bishop said local chefs are encouraged to visit the market on Saturdays to meet the vendors who are interested in selling to restaurants. If they like what they see, the chefs can make arrangements with participating vendors on price, delivery and what can be grown.


“We’re hoping the word will spread as people visit our website and as local customers to these restaurants ask the chefs there for local food,” Bishop said. “Growers would love to be able to put their fresh produce in our area restaurants.”


Schleusner can go through his menu and detail where certain ingredients originated: Tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, okra, corn, eggplant, baby carrots, potatoes, blueberries and honeysuckle syrup all purchased from farmers in the Wiregrass. When Schleusner can’t find something locally, he extends his search throughout the South – Vidalia onions and cheese from Georgia, seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, sausage from Conecuh County and even organic grits from North Alabama.


“It’s all about the ecological footprint,” Schleusner said. “Not only is it going to be cheaper, but it’s going to sustain someone close to Enterprise, and it’s going to taste better.”


Of course there are some things, such as asparagus, that just can’t be found close to home. He gets it shipped from California. And when the California asparagus goes out of season, Schleusner takes asparagus off his menu rather than get asparagus shipped in from outside the U.S.


“If the American farmer is struggling so hard, why in the world are we supporting South America?” Schleusner said. “It irks me, and the product doesn’t taste as good as it can taste … Americans have become so accustomed to seeing asparagus 12 months of the year, do they care the best season is in the spring months in California?”


Schleusner, who picked up his first kitchen knife at 13, developed his philosophy over the years working with other professional chefs. When he moved his family to Enterprise last year, The Rawls was under renovation. Without a kitchen, Schleusner took the time to visit local farmers and find who was willing to grow what for him.


In addition to Merritt, Schleusner buys food from other area growers like Wendy Robbins of Avalon Farms in Kinston, who sells at the Poplar Head Farmers Market as well as one in Troy. Avalon is a small farm only in its third season, so it doesn’t have the supply that larger farmers can provide – which touches on another issue for restaurants. Larger restaurants or owners with multiple sites may not have the flexibility smaller establishments have with adjusting menus to accommodate local growing seasons.


Robbins, whose son has an interest in cooking and now works in the kitchen at The Rawls, met Schleusner during last year’s farmers market.


“To work with a local grower, especially small people like me, you’ve got to have some flexibility,” said Robbins. “Chef Bill changes his menu every few weeks. Most want to keep a set menu. They’d rather buy it frozen.”

Robbins said growers working with chefs can be a symbiotic relationship – everybody benefits, even the consumer.


“At least I know for a fact if it was picked, it was at the most this week,” Robbins said of using local produce. “I think that’s the big advantage of local, you get a better quality in a timelier manner.”